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Watching the Eclipse from the Highest Mountain in Vermont

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I don’t think of myself as the kind of person who would travel to see an eclipse but, then again, neither am I the type who, when it’s time to savor a sunset or a mountain view, insists on talking about his children, or about other people’s children. Which is to say, I do, like any decent earthling, chase and savor the sublime, but I also like to stay home and grumble.

And yet, sure enough, there I was in Vermont, on Monday morning, for the express purpose of bearing witness to the latest full solar eclipse. (A thought: Why don’t eclipses, like hurricanes or full moons, get names?) My brother lives in Stowe, Vermont, and so, a year ago, I had staked a claim to his guest room and begun scheming about the best place to be at the appointed hour. It was just a five-hour drive from Manhattan—on Sunday, anyway.

My plan was this: to hike up with my skis from the top of the gondola at the Stowe ski resort, to the peak of Mt. Mansfield, the highest point in the state, and to watch the eclipse from there. Specifically, the section of the Mansfield Ridge called the Chin, which is 4,393 feet above sea level. From the Chin, I knew, you could get a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view. This seemed to me to be a set and setting worth pilgrimaging for.

Monday was sunny and warm—bluebird, as the skiers say. The mountain had got a couple of feet of fresh snow the previous week, but now winter was in swift retreat and mud season was nigh. My brother, my wife, and I skied sun-warmed corn all morning. The mountain was crowded, the parking lots jammed. On the chairlift, we encountered both eclipse tourists and eclipse-tourist-wary locals, many of whom were just banging out a few runs before going home to watch, to avoid the traffic and mayhem that everyone—the media, the politicians, the nervous nellies—had been predicting. A local salt named Rick had left his eclipse glasses at home, under his wife’s orders, to insure that he return to her and not get caught up in the mounting anticipation on the ski hill. Barry, a friend of my brother’s, told us that from the Chin we’d get a prime view of the approach of the moon’s shadow, as it swept the earth at a speed, he said, of fifteen hundred miles per hour. This was exciting to contemplate, but not so much so that we didn’t continue to nurture doubts about heading up to the Chin, in light of crowds, the potential sketchiness of the ski down, and then the traffic everyone was freaking out about. In the gondola, a guy who’d been silent the whole way, as we discussed the route, said, “Are you really sure it’s worth it?” We weren’t.

The hike to the Chin, about seven hundred and fifty vertical feet, would take about a half hour. The way up was a bootpack—a makeshift stairway chipped from the snow by the steps of other skiers and snowboarders—up a diagonal slot along an escarpment of schist. On this day, it was a highway, not just of experienced backcountry skiers but also of tourists in street shoes, in over their cuffs.

We strapped our skis to our backpacks and started up. I fell in with four travellers from Lowell, Massachusetts, who’d arrived in the Stowe parking lot at 4 A.M. Three of them were Cambodian American, named Syn, Sal, and Chintra, which, she said, was Khmer for “moonlight.” On top, they headed out to the ridge to the east of the peak. Due west, a line of high haze was approaching.

A brisk wind blew in from the northwest. Some hundred hikers were sprawled on the rocks. It was 2 P.M., with fifteen minutes to go before the moon’s first contact with the sun. Ninety minutes until totality. More hikers arrived. People cracked cans of beer and smoked cannabis and popped mushroom gummies and ate smoked-meat sandwiches. A man puffed on a cigar. Another brewed coffee on a camping stove. Some people lay on their backs in their eclipse glasses while others did tai chi. Two Mountain Rescue volunteers, in red, wandered the crowd, offering free eclipse glasses and advice, to the civilians without skis, on how, and how quickly, to get back down. A group of young dudes from Burlington slipped down into a steep couloir called the Hourglass and began scheming angles and camera positions for an eclipse shot—the totality as a backdrop for some hairy line.

A man who called himself Wiley announced his intention to, as he put it, “go down in darkness.” He wore powder-blue snowboard boots and what looked like a bunny suit. “It’s not a bunny suit,” he said. “It’s a wolf. Look at the tail.” He had Swifty Lazar glasses and had skinned up on a split-board. “This is the Wolf Moon,” he said. “I don’t know what the Wolf Moon is.” (The Wolf Moon is in fact the January moon, the first full moon of the year.) As the moon began to encroach on the sun, he duct-taped glow sticks to his helmet, put on a headlamp, and began waxing his snowboard. The light grew dusky, though it was hard to determine if this was because of the haze or the moon.

“It’s getting weird, baby,” Wiley said.

From up there you could see, to the east, the shimmering white ridgeline of Mt. Washington and the Presidential Range, and to the west, across the expanse of Lake Champlain, the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, including the tentacles of trails on Whiteface. We counted the other ski areas arrayed around us, like the points on a compass. Below us, Smugglers’ Notch. Then Bolton, Sugarbush, Killington and Pico, Cannon, Burke, Jay Peak. On each, presumably, another brigade of eyewitnesses. But the Chin had a view of about as broad a horizon as one can find on the East Coast, and it was close to as high as one could be along the path of totality.

The moment approached, and the crowd settled in. Wiley clipped in and boarded off, so determined to go down in darkness that he would miss the big show on top. A better story but a narrower encounter, perhaps. One could go down in darkness anytime.

I’d hear and read, in the coming hours, about people who considered the eclipse to be a dud, a big nothing, a product of media hype or mass hysteria. This was especially true, it should be said, of people who were outside the path of totality, whose experience consisted mainly of a subtle dimming of the light and a little bite out of the sun. Certainly, standing atop the Chin, as the temperature dropped and a distractible and motley array of shivering citizens tried to manufacture some special enthusiasm for the imminence of something cosmic, I toyed with the idea that we are silly creatures, suggestible and vain, and that this hike up to the Chin was just a performative, self-regarding stunt—that, although it was a fun way to spend a working afternoon, it was not necessarily, to use the gondola guy’s terms, really worth it.

But then it happened. And I confess that even as I type, I experience a kind of exultation, remembering what occurred and the feeling it brought on, both in me personally and in a mass of strangers on a mountaintop. The Adirondacks went dark, and Whiteface disappeared. The shadow roared in across the lake, like some diabolical gloom or lethal wall of hail. The actual moment when the disk of the moon locked into place brought on a collective gasp and shout, and then beneath the darkness, along the horizon line from Canada down to Ticonderoga, there appeared a blessed twilight, a rim of impossible sunset. The lake went from mercury to aurelian, and the lights went on in Burlington. The White Mountains still glowed white, until the darkness bled east, and then we had sunset in the round. We spun in circles, making goo-goo faces. The skiers launched into their chutes.

When the light returned, it seemed silvery in a way that I can’t connect with any particular place or time of day, and the assemblage toppled around on the rocks, expressing wonderment with the superlatives at hand. Someone remarked that the sense of ecstasy and good will engendered by an eclipse was supposed to persist for twenty-four hours, but I felt it leaching away at fifteen hundred miles an hour. We paid the receding crescent little mind. That wedge couldn’t measure up. I never looked up at it again.

Before long, the pilgrims started back down. The walkers stumbled along the bootpack to the gondola, while the riders chose their ways to go down in light. My brother, my wife, and I clicked into our skis and descended the Chin by way of a tight runnel of snow called Profanity. We beat our way through the woods back to the resort.

That night, the highway south, back to the cities, was jammed. People reported that it took more than six hours to get out of Vermont. Others posted screenshots of the flight paths of private jets leaving local airports. Everyone had time to reconsider what was worth it, and what was not, and perhaps to weigh keeping those considerations to themselves. ♦


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